Both sides are nearing exhaustion and war-weariness is telling on the European economies as well. Should some kind of peace talks take place, the outcome of the battle of Bakhmut will provide a definite leverage.
The small town of Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine has little significance, save for its salt and gypsum mines and its world-famous Artemis sparkling wines. Neatly divided by the Bakhmutka River, this small town of around 70,000, stands astride two crucial highways which lead further west into the Donetsk region. It is just a small town with little military value, but has emerged as the site of the longest and bitterest battle of the Ukraine war.
Bakhmut was invested in the early days of the war by fighters of the Wagner Group, regular units of the Russian army and militia of the Donetsk and Luhansk Front. The city was shelled in May 2022, when the Russians launched their offensive in the Donbas. The first attacks came in around August, gradually intensifying in scale, and it is estimated that the city and its outlying areas were subject to around 135 separate attacks. As the Ukrainians dug into their defensive layout, the front line degenerated into a brutal trench warfare—reminiscent of Verdun in the First World War. Throughout winter, the two sides slogged it out, being pounded incessantly by artillery and the front line moving just a few hundred yards every day. A major success came in January, when the Russians captured Soledar—a small town 20 kilometers to the north—which allowed them to surround Bakhmut and cut off its supply lines. Isolated from three sides, with only one road still open for the Ukrainians to bring in supplies and reinforcements, the fall of the beleaguered city seems a matter of time.
In the intense battle for the city, the Wagner group has been in the forefront. Made up of mercenaries and ex-convicts (many of whom were promised freedom in return of six months of fighting) and led by the shadowy oligarch Yevgeny Prigoshin, it has launched fanatical attacks on the city, often at exorbitant cost. In fact, the capture of the city has become a prestige issue between the army and the Wagner group. Both sides have had open disagreements about the allocation of resources and ammunition resupply, and both accuse the other of stymying their own efforts. In fact, the battle has brought the rift that prevails within the Russian forces.
After nine months of fighting, only around 4,000 of the original inhabitants still remain and the town a charred and devastated moonscape, completely in ruins. No movement will be possible even after its capture and the town itself will be uninhabitable. As one wag put it—the only reason for capture remains the 50 million bottles of rare wines which lie in its underground caves. But the battle has taken a huge toll on both sides. Russia is estimated to have lost around 30,000 soldiers mainly from the Wagner Group who are considered expendable cannon fodder. Ukraine does not reveal its casualty figures, but their own losses are estimated to be around 15-20,000 dead. As the battle approaches its final stage, the figure is likely become even higher as the two sides slug it out in the streets and houses of the ruined town.
Zelenskyy has vowed to hold “Fortress Bakhmut” and the phrase “Bakhmut holds” has become a rallying cry. An estimated eight brigades—around 24,000 men—are operating there and vow to hold on. Yet, it is likely that the Ukrainians will eventually withdraw to better defensive positions in the west to preserve their troops. But even if Bakhmut falls, the time gained by the staunch defence has enabled the Ukrainians to develop lines of defences in the rear which will be even more difficult to breach. The Ukrainian strategy seems to be to bleed the Russians in expensive attacks on their defences and tie down their soldiers so they cannot be used elsewhere. But this strategy is proving expensive for Ukraine as well.
For Putin, the capture of the city is a symbolic victory which he needs to show to his people after a winter of reverses. If the Russians capture the town, it will give them a springboard to launch subsequent offensives into the Donetsk region, towards the more important objectives of Izium, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. Already around 90 probing attacks have been launched north and south of Bakhmut as a prelude to an anticipated spring offensive which could be unleashed across the entire Donbas front after Bakhmut falls. But this offensive too could pound against the cities and face the same meat-grinding battles of Bakhmut.
Analysts opine that Bakhmut does not have any strategic significance, but its importance goes beyond that. The heavy resources that both sides have poured into the battle have brought out that this kind of attrition-heavy warfare is unsustainable. Even though Russia is better placed to fight a long war, it is running low and hunting for ammunition from Iraq, North Korea and others. Ukraine has been beefed up by western aid, but is already consuming more ammunition in a month than the NATO nations combined produce in a year. Both sides are nearing exhaustion and war-weariness is telling on the European economies as well. Should some kind of peace talks take place, the outcome of the battle of Bakhmut will provide a definite leverage.
We can see distinct signals emerging from both sides. Russia is playing hardball, and seems to be pursuing a ‘escalate-to-deescalate’ strategy. The nuclear threat is being bandied more frequently now, especially if other powers enter the war. The Foreign Minister also spoke blithely of securing Russia’s borders by extending them up to Poland (in an oblique threat to Poland for its supply of tanks to Ukraine). Russia has suspended its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II – the only surviving arms control treaty between USA and Russia. The non-extension of START II implies, that Russian nuclear sites will no longer be open for routine verification, nor will they have to intimate the movements of their strategic weapons. A vital confidence-building measure has been removed, which indirectly reduces the nuclear threshold. Ukraine too has upped the ante by launching drone attacks virtually up to Moscow, and for the first time, striking targets deep within Russia – an indicator that it is willing to impose unacceptable costs to Russia should the war go on.
Equally telling are the signs from China. With China-US relations in a nosedive after the shooting down of their spy balloon over the US, China has become even more vocal in its support for Russia. It is likely that it could provide weapons—even though that will “cross the red line” and change the complexion of the war. China has accused the US of being “the invisible hand” that is prolonging the war. That is true to some measure. The US has a vested interest in continuing the war, but the first cracks in European unity seem to be emerging, especially with Germany. The revelation that it was the US or perhaps Ukrainian supporters behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline has frayed German support somewhat. War weariness is also telling on other European nations and the calls for a ceasefire are coming in from many quarters.
It thus seems likely that both sides could be persuaded for talks and perhaps even a ceasefire. But before that, both sides will want to improve their negotiating position. The outcome of the Battle of Bakhmut will play a major role in that. The fall of Bakhmut could also see the Russians launch their Spring Offensive, and the Ukrainians could also use their newly received consignment of Leopard II tanks and artillery systems for an offensive in the south. One does not know how that could pan out, but with both sides having prepared strong defensive lines the outcome will most probably be a repeat of the slow attrition battles of the past year. The Ukrainian war does not seem headed for an early conclusion, and it is in the interest of all sides—and the cheerleaders in the sidelines—to push for a cessation of hostilities and to broker an early, but just, truce.
Ajay Singh is the international award-winning author of six books and over 200 articles. His latest book is “The Russia-Ukraine War”.